The River

A Novel

Formats and Prices


Trade Paperback


Trade Paperback

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around March 3, 2020. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

NATIONAL BESTSELLER * From the author of The Guide and The Dog Stars comes the story of two college students on a wilderness canoe trip–a gripping tale of a friendship tested by fire, white water, and violence.

“A fiery tour de force … I could not put this book down. It truly was terrifying and unutterably beautiful.”–The Denver Post

Wynn and Jack have been best friends since college orientation, bonded by their shared love of mountains, books, and fishing. Wynn is a gentle giant, a Vermont kid never happier than when his feet are in the water. Jack is more rugged, raised on a ranch in Colorado where sleeping under the stars and cooking on a fire came as naturally to him as breathing. When they decide to canoe the Maskwa River in northern Canada, they anticipate long days of leisurely paddling and picking blueberries, and nights of stargazing and reading paperback Westerns. But a wildfire making its way across the forest adds unexpected urgency to the journey.

One night, with the fire advancing, they hear a man and woman arguing on the fog-shrouded riverbank; the next day, a man appears on the river, paddling alone. Is this the same man they heard? And if he is, where is the woman? From this charged beginning, master storyteller Peter Heller unspools a headlong, heart-pounding story of desperate wilderness survival.

Look for Peter Heller’s new novel, The Last Ranger, coming soon!


To my father, John Heller,

the best storyteller I ever heard.

Who first took me out in small boats,

and who sang "Little Joe the Wrangler"

and "Barbara Allen."


They had been smelling smoke for two days.

At first they thought it was another campfire and that surprised them because they had not heard the engine of a plane and they had been traveling the string of long lakes for days and had not seen sign of another person or even the distant movement of another canoe. The only tracks in the mud of the portages were wolf and moose, otter, bear.

The winds were west and north and they were moving north so if it was another party they were ahead of them. It perplexed them because they were smelling smoke not only in early morning and at night, but would catch themselves at odd hours lifting their noses like coyotes, nostrils flaring.

And then one evening they pulled up on a wooded island and they made camp and fried a meal of lake trout on a driftwood fire and watched the sun sink into the spruce on the far shore. Late August, a clear night becoming cold. There was no aurora borealis, just the dense sparks of the stars blown from their own ancient fire. They climbed the hill. They did not need a headlamp as they were used to moving in the dark. Sometimes if they were feeling strong they paddled half the night. They loved how the darkness amplified the sounds—the gulp of the dipping paddles, the knock of the wood shaft against the gunwale. The long desolate cry of a loon. The loons especially. How they hollowed out the night with longing.

Tonight there was no loon and almost no wind and they went up through tamarack and hemlock and a few large birch trees whose pale bark fluoresced. At the top of the knoll they followed a game trail to a ledge of broken rock as if they weren't the first who had sought the view. And they saw it. They looked northwest. At first they thought it was the sun, but it was far too late for any lingering sunset and there were no cities in that direction for a thousand miles. In the farthest distance, over the trees, was an orange glow. It lay on the horizon like the light from banked embers and it fluttered barely so they wondered if it was their eyes and they knew it was a fire.

A forest fire, who knew how far off or how big, but bigger than any they could imagine. It seemed to spread over two quadrants and they didn't say a word but the silence of it and the way it seemed to breathe scared them to the bone. The prevailing wind would push the blaze right to them. At the pace they were going they were at least two weeks from the Cree village of Wapahk and Hudson Bay. When the most northerly lake spilled into the river they would pick up speed but there was no way to shorten the miles.


On the morning after seeing the fire they did spot another camp. It was on the northeastern verge of a wooded island and they swung out to it and were surprised that no one was breaking down the large wall tent. No one was going anywhere. There was an old white-painted square-stern woodstrip canoe on the gravel with a trolling motor clamped to the transom and two men in folding lawn chairs, legs sprawled straight. Jack and Wynn beached and hailed them and the men lifted their arms. They had a plastic fifth of Ancient Age bourbon on the stones between the chairs. The heavier one wore a flannel shirt and square steel-rimmed tinted glasses, the skinny one a Texans cap. Two spinning rods and a Winchester Model 70 bolt-action rifle leaned against a pine.

Jack said, "You-all see the fire?"

The skinny one said, "You-all see any pussy?" The men burst out laughing. They were drunk. Jack felt disgust, but being drunk on a summer morning didn't deserve a death sentence.

Jack said, "There's a fire. Big-ass fire to the northwest. What you've been smelling the last few days."

Wynn said, "You guys have a satellite phone?"

That set them off again. When they were finished laughing, the heavy one said, "You two need to chillax. Whyn't you pull up a chair." There were no extra chairs. He lifted the bourbon by the neck between two fingers and rocked it toward them. Jack held up a hand and the man shrugged and brought the fifth up, watching its progress intently as though he was operating a crane. He drank. The lake was a narrow reach and if the fire overran the western shore this island would not keep the men safe.

"How've you been making the portages?" Jack said. He meant the carries between the lakes. There were five lakes, stringing south to north. Some of the lakes were linked by channels of navigable river, others by muddy trails that necessitated unloading everything and carrying. The last lake flowed into the river. It was a big river that meandered generally north a hundred and fifty miles to the Cree village and the bay. Jack was not impressed with the men's fitness level.

"We got the wheely thing," the skinny man said. He made a sweeping gesture at the camp.

"We got just about everything," the fat man said.

"Except pussy." The two let out another gust of laughter.

Jack said, "The fire's upwind. There. We figure maybe thirty miles off. It's a killer."

The fat man brought them into focus. His face turned serious. "We got it covered," he said. "Do you? It's all copacetic here. Whyn't you have a drink?" He gestured at Wynn. "You, the big one—what's your name?"


"He's the mean one, huh?" The fat man cocked his head at Jack. "What's his name? Go Home? Win or Go Home. Ha!"

Wynn didn't know what to say. Jack looked at them. He said, "Well, you might get to high ground and take a look thataway one evening." He pointed across the lake. He didn't think either of them would climb a hill or a tree. He waved, wished them luck without conviction, and he and Wynn got in their canoe and left.


On the third day after seeing the fire they were paddling the east shore of a lake called Blueberries. What it said on the map, and it was an odd name and no way to make it sound right. Blueberries Lake. They were paddling close to shore because the wind was up and straight out of the west and rocking them badly. It was a strange morning: a hard frost early that lingered and then the wind rose up and the black waves piled into them nearly broadside, rank on rank. The tops of the whitecaps blew into the sides of their faces and the waves lapped over the port gunwale so that they decided to surf into a cobble beach and they snapped on the spray deck that covered the open canoe. But there was fog, too. The wind tore into a dense mist and did not blow it away. Neither of them had ever seen anything like it.

They were paddling close to shore and they heard shouting. At first they thought it was birds or wolves. They didn't know what. As with the fire, they could not at first countenance the cause. Human voices were the last thing they expected but that's what it was. A man shouting and a woman's remonstration, high and angry. The cries shredded in the wind. Wynn half turned in the bow and pointed with his paddle, but only for a second as they needed speed for headway or they would capsize. His gesture was a question: Should we stop?

An hour before, when they had beached to put on the spray skirt, they had landed hard. Wynn was heavier and having his weight in front had helped in the wind, but then they had surfed a wave into shore and thwomped onto the rocks, which thankfully were smooth; if the beach had been limestone shale they would have broken the boat. It was a dangerous maneuver.

They could not make out the words, but the woman sounded furious and the man did not sound menacing, just outraged. Jack shook his head. A couple might expect privacy in their home, why shouldn't they be granted the same in the middle of nowhere? They could not see the figures or even the shore, but now and then there was an intimation of trees, just a shadow in the tearing fog, a dark wall which they knew was the edge of the forest, and they paddled on.


The two of them loved paddling in storm. With the spray deck sealing the canoe they felt safe as long as they did not broach sideways, and they struck out away from the shadows and sounds of shore. The compass heading was redundant as long as they kept the breaking waves on the port quarter. They could take heavy water but a capsize away from land would kill them, so they were very careful to power through the whitecaps at an angle. They both paddled on their knees to keep the center of gravity low. It was exhausting. Then the wind died all at once as if throttled and in less than half an hour the lake glassed off and they felt suspended in fog. They moved within a moving nimbus in which only a few yards of black water were visible in any direction, and the pale fog drifted in tatters like stubborn smoke. The water whispered along the hull and it had a silver sheen that reminded Wynn of rayon. All of it was dreamlike; he thought of a Poe novel he had read in which the castaways are pulled toward the South Pole and the current they are riding gets warmer and calmer as they go.

Wynn stopped paddling. As the bowman today he set the pace and so Jack quit paddling too and they glided. The boat was sleek Kevlar, nineteen feet, and with a V'd hull in bow and stern it glided straight. There was something satisfying in a cessation of paddling on smooth water. It was like watching a flock of ducks all stop beating at once and sail over a bank of trees on extended wings.

"That was weird," Jack said.

"Fucking A. Which part?"

"I can tick them off," Jack said. He set the paddle across the spray deck and pried a tin of Skoal out of his shirt's breast pocket. He was soaked from spray, but Jack never wore a rain jacket when he was paddling because he said he got just as wet from sweat, even in the breathable stuff. He also didn't use bug dope, on principle. He tucked a pinch into his lip. "Let's see: Wind and fog together, that's a first. Oh yeah, and frost. The sudden calm. The shouts. And this. This is kinda weird."

Wynn didn't say anything. They were still gliding and something about the near silence was like a sacrament. He stuck a finger in the dark water and it was still cold, probably near forty degrees, and he watched his finger cut a small V-wake. It was the only sure sign of motion. "I was thinking of that story by Poe," he said finally. "Arthur Gordon Pym."

"Yeah, right?" Jack spat. "I wonder who they were. It sounded like a couple."

"Maybe we'll see them again."

"I hope not. All morning I've been wondering if we should've stopped."

"To tell them about the fire?"


"It would've been dicey," Wynn said. He meant to surf in—and what if the beach had been broken limestone? They called any open shoreline that ran smoothly to the water a beach.

Jack said, "I was thinking maybe we should have stopped and tried to hail them."

They drifted. "Want some lunch?" Wynn said.

"Okay. I guess we're good with the deck."

They unbuttoned the spray deck from its cleats and Jack rummaged in the day bag and pulled out a brick of sharp cheddar, a dry summer sausage, and a Ziploc full of half-broken Triscuits. He sat up on the cane seat. There was a small cutting board in the bag, too, and Jack flipped open his clip knife and set the board on his knees and sliced the cheese and sausage.


They were best friends at Dartmouth who had decided to take the summer and fall quarters off. They had worked as wilderness instructors for an outdoor program in the Adirondacks all June and July, and they decided to blow half their savings on the flights in and out of the river in the old Otter floatplane. Neither was attached. Jack had broken up with his high school sweetheart in the spring. She lived in the Fraser valley of Colorado, near Granby, where Jack's family had their small ranch.

Wynn had not had a girl since junior year at the Putney School in Vermont. It was kind of a fancy boarding school, but his family lived three miles away and he was a day student. He'd dated the daughter of a movie star, who'd found him exotic and rustic, and he told Jack he had known it wouldn't work when he went home with her to Malibu during spring break and they'd all gone out to brunch on a weekday and the star mother and the daughter ordered eggs Florentine and he'd asked what it was and both their heads swiveled and the mother said, "Wynn, it's like Benedict but with spinach instead of Canadian bacon." She'd adjusted her glasses. "Benedict?" she'd said. "Yes? No?" and they'd both burst out laughing and Keri had reached over and patted him on the shoulder. He knew what eggs Benedict was. He said the pat burned like a brand and that afternoon he'd changed his flight and flown home. It was sugaring season anyway, one of his favorite times, and he helped his father boil in the little sugar shack along Sawyer Brook.

Sometimes they boiled all night. At dawn the sun washed the patchy snow in a rose light, and the daybreak wind rattled the dried leaves of the oaks and the bare branches of the maples, and he heard the rush of the snowmelt brook, the songs of the nuthatch. The fire crackled under the long pan of clear sap and he and his dad didn't say much, but he was aware enough—he'd read enough fiction, he guessed—to realize that these might be the best hours he and his father ever spent together.

He also came to see in the long hours of trying to work through his heartache that maybe he had been just as ruthlessly shallow and opportunistic as she had been: she'd wanted to indulge in a local boy who wore flannel shirts and could fish and cut wood and was as at home sleeping under the stars as she was in a five-star suite, and he'd wanted to date the daughter of a star who moved through the world like a different species. But really she was just a young girl who was far from home and probably scared, and he was much more cultured than he let on and had spent more hours in the art museums of Boston and New York than he cared to admit. He just had never had eggs Florentine.

He came to the conclusion one morning walking the sugarbush of Dusty Ridge that he and Keri had never really been friends and that they had rarely laughed. That was sad.

Jack's story was simpler. He had known Cheryl since second grade, when her father came to the valley to take over as police chief, and they were best friends, and now she wanted to get married and have kids and he realized that she was the best kind of woman and that he was already bored. He'd written her the Dear Jill letter in May, and when he'd said he hoped they remained friends forever he meant it.

So both Jack and Wynn had digested their share of bewilderment, and maybe there was a heavy place like a stone inside each of them. Wynn would never admit that he'd been in love and that Keri's scorn had been a gut punch. Or that maybe he hadn't dated in the first two years of college because he was gun-shy.

They drifted. Jack kept slicing the cheese and the sausage until there was none left. They ate like wolves. The good thing about a canoe trip is that they didn't have to be shy about provisions. They had two three-foot plastic barrels stuffed with enough food probably to get by even if they never caught another fish.

"They must be paddling down to Wapahk," Jack said. That was the village they were headed for: the plan was to paddle this last lake that emptied into the river, then the river for a couple of weeks, then take out at the little settlement at the mouth of Hudson Bay.

"Or they're just paddling the lakes up here and they'll get picked up. Them and the drunks."

They thought about that. It occurred to them, though neither of them spoke it, that with the fire coming the safest thing would be to catch a flight out of Blueberries Lake. They'd flown in to the first lake on floats and they could take off on them, too. Because this evening or tomorrow morning this most northerly lake would pour into a river. And when they left the lake behind and paddled into the tongue of current that became the Maskwa there would be no going back. They would ride the swift V of moving water into the channel and they would be committed to paddling all the way to Hudson Bay. There would be nowhere on the large but constricted river to land a floatplane until they were near the mouth in two weeks. But. They could not stay up on the lake because they had no radio or sat phone to contact the airfield in Pickle Lake for a pickup—or any airfield. Or anyone, if they needed a rescue. They'd talked about it in planning the trip and decided that modern communications had made true adventure a thing of the past. Plus, they couldn't afford a sat phone.

They drifted in the fog. The lightest breeze from the northwest carried the sharp scent that was different from the smell of the woodstoves, which was so familiar in the valleys where they had grown up. It was heavier with char and smelled darker somehow.

"Maybe they have a phone," Wynn ventured. They drifted.

Jack said, "You think we should abort?"

Wynn shrugged.

They had paddled many rivers together in the two years they'd known each other, and climbed a lot of peaks. Sometimes one had more appetite for danger, sometimes the other. There was a delicate but strong balance of risk versus caution in their team thinking, with the roles often fluid, and it's what made them such good partners. Jack would not disrespect his friend by belittling his concern. He said, "We've made a lot of effort to get here, huh?"


"But nobody wants to get overrun by a megafire."


"Want a chocolate bar?" Jack said.


They could barely feel the breeze on their left ears and cheeks and it moved the fog over the water with a timeless languor as if there never had been a time without fog and there would never be one again. It seemed to be lightening.

"If they aren't getting picked up and they are planning to head downriver, we should tell the couple about the fire," Wynn said. He handed his wrapper to Jack, who crumpled it and tucked it into a mesh pocket slung on one of the barrels. They'd burn the wrappers tonight. "Everyone going downriver is going to want to hustle."

Jack blew through his cheeks. "We'll lose half a day, huh?" He picked up his paddle from where he'd slid it into the pocket of the bow.


"Well, let's lose it then."

They spun the canoe against the light resistance of the false keel, spun it on the smooth water as if on a spindle, and straightened out and dug in. Back the way they had come. Without the wind and waves to provide the angle of a heading, Jack used the compass and held a course of 170 degrees and they paddled back into the mist to warn the other party.


The fog did lift. It seemed to lighten and clear within minutes, vanishing into the crisp morning as if it had never existed, and the sky was cloudless and an autumn blue. The clarity of the air was like putting on magnifying glasses: every trunk of every birch tree seemed to stand out against the backdrop of tamarack, of spruce, and there were touches of yellow at the edges of the limbs, and some of the tamarack needles were the faded colors of fall grass. The pink fireweed along the shore beneath the trees popped as in a painting. Overnight it seemed summer had surrendered to fall. It was beautiful and it scared them both. All the whitewater was ahead of them, and it would be much safer if the warmer days of late summer persisted. They had brought wetsuits, but they'd heard about expeditions getting overrun by early snow or cold and men dying. It had happened on a now-famous canoe trip of six Dartmouth men in 1955 up on the Dubawnt when the leader, named Art Moffatt, had died after a long swim through a rapid in freezing weather. Up here there was no predicting the timing of the seasons and they had picked their window for the chance of lowest water and warmest days; also, it was when their jobs had ended.

They paddled. Jack hummed. He usually hummed when he paddled, bars of old cowboy songs his father had sung to him like "Streets of Laredo" and "Little Joe the Wrangler" and "Barbara Allen." Also Sky Ferreira and Drake and Solange; Wynn appreciated the range.

A few days back they had been paddling between two islands on Lake Sorrow and Wynn in the stern had seen something in the water. It was big and it was cutting a wake like a small boat. He stared. Whatever it was, it was traveling toward the same island on which they'd planned to make camp. Jack was humming and partly singing in snatches Wyclef Jean's "Guantanamera": "I'm standing at the bar smoking a Cuban cigar…Hey yo I think she's eyein' me from afar…" Wynn squinted in the stern and made out the rack of a moose. Huge. It must have been, it looked big even from that distance. Two miles from the nearest shore. Great. They'd be sharing a little island with a comfortably amphibious bull moose. At least it wasn't rut season yet. "Hey, hey Jack, look at that. Damn." He didn't know why he was whispering. Jack kept humming, lost in some reverie. "Hey." Hum, murmur, a snatch of rap. "Hey! Dude!" Jack had turned, startled.

"Do you know you hum all day?"

"I do?"

"Yep. And we're gonna have company." Wynn pointed with his paddle.

"Crap, is that a moose?" Jack laughed. "Too bad we can't harness the fucker like a reindeer. Look at him haul the mail. Must be going four knots."

They had decided to camp on the island anyway and had no problem coexisting that night. The south shore had a cove full of duckweed and they'd walked around quietly and watched him feed. Just before full dark they'd been sitting at the fire drinking late coffee and Jack had whistled soundless and Wynn had turned and they saw the moose standing at the edge of the woods watching, and he seemed forlorn, as if he wanted to join them. He had clearly never seen a human before.

Now, with the fog lifted and the air lens-clear and cold, they thought they'd have no problem spotting the couple's camp, but they couldn't. It occurred to them that maybe there'd been more than two. Two people. Maybe it had been an entire expedition camped on the east shore and all they'd heard was the shouting of the couple down on the beach. Maybe the man and the woman had walked away from the group to argue. But then it would have been even easier to spot the colorful tents of this other party, or to see the string of canoes making their way north to the lake's outlet and the true river, but they didn't. They didn't see a thing.

They saw the patches of bright fireweed and the wall of woods, and shallow bays with stony beaches sometimes backed by fringes of tall tawny grass; they saw rocky coves with deadfall spruce lying across black boulders and bleached like bones, and low patches of vegetation between the rocks on the shore that they knew were lowbush blueberries.

If they were tempted to stop and pick they didn't say it. They were feeling pressured now. What they had wanted by giving themselves almost a month, more, to cross the lakes and run the river was a voyage with no hard end date. They left the flight out from Wapahk open-ended—they'd call when they got to the village—and they'd planned a leisurely pace with short days whenever they wanted. With layovers in camp to hike, to hunt if they felt like it, to forage for berries, to rest and smoke their pipes and take their ease like Huck Finn or Stubb—the pipes were anachronistic and they loved them, to recline in camp and puff a vanilla tobacco mix made them feel like old explorers. They hungered to immerse themselves in the country without the hurry of a jammed itinerary. They'd even left their watches, trusting their sense of time to the sun and stars when they could see them and to their bodies' rhythms when they couldn't. Most of their previous river trips had been a hustle, because they were students with jobs and so their time off was short. They wanted to try this, to feel what it was actually like to live in the landscape a little. But now everything had changed. The fire they'd seen the other night and the early frost had changed it.

They paddled back a hundred and seventy degrees from the way they'd come, which angled them toward shore, and they thought it was odd that they hadn't seen any sign of a recent camp or crossed tracks with another canoe. A small tributary creek wound out of the woods and across a broader beach and they decided to stop and make a fire and have tea and think about things. Normally they might have fished the side slough but now they didn't. It was a darker color than the lake which had hued to an opaque green in the early-afternoon sun. The creek was brown with tannin, and they'd often had luck catching brookies in the smaller tributaries, but neither of them pulled out his rod.

On Sale
Mar 3, 2020
Page Count
272 pages